Planning Watch | Sunday, 30 November 2008

High rise in Valletta

A development proposal consists of the demolition of a large part of a building in Strait Street in Valletta, retaining only the frontal rooms at first and second floor levels while the third and fourth floor levels were to be constructed with lower ceilings underlying a top fifth receded floor was submitted to MEPA
The site being where it is, it naturally forms part of the Urban Conservation Area. On a parallel note, the Grand Harbour Local Plan identifies the site as a Housing Improvement Action Area – a goal which has not been achieved to date.
The proposed building would therefore result in five storeys (and a penthouse), and was designed to be flanked by a building having the same height on the left and a building which is lower by one storey on its right. According to the drawings submitted to MEPA for approval, the resulting façade was designed to be higher than that of the adjacent building by five courses.
On assessing the proposal, the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee objected to the extra floors, stating that the proposed solution was incompatible with UNESCO’s recommendations for world heritage sites. The Committee argued that the new floors, if approved, would be visible and the interior of the building would be destroyed. A similar concern was expressed by the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee, which underlined that the proposed demolition of the internal staircase was unacceptable and the introduction of the penthouse would detract from the character of the area.
In synch with the opinions expressed by the Valetta Rehabilitation Committee and the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee, the case officer expressed his concern to the effect that the proposal would result in the gutting out of the internal walls and the complete demolition of the floors, pointing further that the aesthetics of the piano nobile, being an integral part of the features of houses in Valletta, would be obliterated if an extra floor within its volume was introduced as suggested in the proposal.
When the application was referred to the DCC Board for a decision, the Commission, unlike the Directorate, was willing to negotiate a planning solution, and asked the architect to submit photos of the internal of the building as well as existing party wall commitments at roof level with a view to reach an informed decision.
Nonetheless, the Planning Directorate reacted again by stating that if the penthouse was approved, the permit would only serve as a precedent for additional floors on all adjacent properties to the detriment of the Valletta skyline. The Directorate also argued that the proposal was unacceptable on the additional count that one of the dwellings was less than 45 square mteres, which is the minimum size of dwellings permitted by policy.
At this stage, the DCC asked applicant to eliminate the proposed penthouse at roof level, to which end the applicant had no option but to comply to their request. When the application was referred to the DCC for a decision earlier this week, the proposal was approved on the specific condition that the façade is retained in its entirety. The DCC found no objection that one of the proposed apartments fell short of the minimum area permitted by policy.

Case Implications
Grand Harbour Local Plan policy GV 15 specifies that in the consideration of applications which include changes to existing building heights, MEPA must take account of the roofscape, the general massing of the building and skyline when seen from outside the site. Hence, one may safely justify the DCC’s decision to ask applicant to eliminate the proposed penthouse.
However, the DCC was correct in its approach when it approved the construction of the additional floors, since the resultant building height respected more or less the height of the adjacent five storey building. Hence, the proposal was not in conflict with the rationale tied to Structure Plan Policy UCO 10, which allows additions if they are compatible with the height of the adjoining buildings.
The DCC was also justified to accept multiple units within the same block, notwithstanding the fact that one of the proposed residences which was to be located at second floor had an area of less than 40m². (Policy 3.7 of the Policy and Design Guidance 2007 stipulates that the minimum dwelling size must be 45m²)
It must be also recalled that Structure Plan Policy HOU 2 advocates the reoccupation of vacant and underutilised dwellings, while, of equal significance, the Structure Plan encourages high density development in order to avoid further encroachment into land outside the Development Scheme boundary.
The only way to conserve and preserve buildings in Valletta is to secure their prolonged use through feasible investment solutions.
Once again, this is a decision which demonstrates MEPA’s commitment to secure reasonable planning solutions aimed to restore Valletta to its former aesthetic glory.

Robert Musumeci is an architect. His main area of practice focuses on MEPA development applications.


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